|BOOK REVIEW BY JEAN-MARIE VOLET|
(Novel written in French)
(Senegal - Ivory Coast)
|Abidjan : Nouvelles Editions Ivoiriennes, 1999, 200 pages. ISBN 2-911725-79-4|
As it were, my discovery of Soukey coincided with the reading of the articles on fashion that piled up on my desk for the current issue of "Mots Pluriels". Among them was a short piece on Senegalese fashion by Mariama Ndoye herself, extracts from Adja Fatou Niang Siga on traditional dress in Senegal, Mark Hinchman's analysis of Boilat and my own piece, in which I was arguing that in African literature, fashion and characters' clothing are, in no small part, left to the reader's imagination.
No doubt this reading material dealing with African fashion has influenced in some way my perception of the novel and led me to make (too) much of the numerous pagnes, boubous and other garments spread throughout Mariama Ndoye's novel. For a critic who had mourned the lack of clothing in African literature only a few days earlier, what a treat (and a challenge) to discover a book that included fashion in such a profuse and stimulating manner. Sentences such as "Elle essuya ses larmes et rajusta les plis de sa jupe à godets"(p.115) or "la robe aux manches bouffantes et au bas largement évasé retombait en corolle autour d'elle" (p.40) seemed to give the extra detail that focused readers' imagination on the characters' dress. But there was more to Mariama Ndoye's world of fashion than bits of literary trivia. Her narrator also used fashion in order to express people's attitudes, behaviour and feelings toward each other. A short passage relating mothers' anxiety before their daughter first day at school is a case in point:
Yet, although fashion is called upon to create a relevant sense of place and purpose, Soukey is not primarily a book concerned with people's appearance. It is rather a reflection on individuals' sojourn through life, trying as best they can to live together, spurred on by friendship and deception, love and hate, society's 'dos and dont's'. In a constantly fluctuating journey, traditional wisdom and modernity are like the two sides of the same coin and individuals are affected by both of them, for better or for worse. For example, Soukey is separated from her family at a very early age when her mother dies. Later, she gets pregnant out of wedlock and finds herself exiled to a foreign country. But these trying experiences also have a positive side : she discover new places, new people, new friends and new challenges.
Soukey's story alone would make the novel a good read, but what makes it even more interesting is the thorough analysis of Senegalese life offered by the narrator. Tales, legends, short stories and words of wisdom inserted in the main narrative give her an opportunity to reflect astutely on an array of issues such as polygamy (which leads to the maiming of women under the helpless gaze of "les dignes mâles sénégalais"[p.71]) ; forced marriage (which leads to the suicide of one of the heroine's classmates ); the caste system, homosexuality, AIDS, rape, corruption, food pattern, etc.
However, important as they are, these issues are never exploited gratuitously for their dramatic effect. Rather they are introduced with all the sensitivity required by the uneasy elements of social fabric and have to be dealt with by way of negotiation, pragmatism and good sense. In her short piece written for "Mots Pluriels", Mariama Ndoye mentions her "quête permanente d'harmonie" [continuous quest for harmony]. That would be a fitting summary of the book and also one of the reasons why one feels good in reading this novel in spite of the harsh and uncompromising reality it portrays.
All in all, Soukey represents a major literary achievement and I have little doubt that it will be recognised as such in the years to come.